Obituaries

Gaeton Fonzi; investigator pursued story of JFK killing

Mr. Fonzi believed conspiracies were behind Martin Luther King Jr. and President Kennedy’s assassinations.
Bernard McCormick/Philadelphia Inquirer
Mr. Fonzi believed conspiracies were behind Martin Luther King Jr. and President Kennedy’s assassinations.

NEW YORK — Gaeton Fonzi was one of the most relentless investigators on the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late 1970s, remembered by former colleagues with both awe and echoes of the impatience he inspired with his pursuit of the full story behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

They called him Ahab.

Mr. Fonzi was also the staff member most publicly dismayed by the committee’s final report, which concluded in 1979 that the president ‘‘was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.’’

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Of course it was a conspiracy, said Mr. Fonzi, a journalist recruited mainly on the strength of scathing magazine critiques he had written about the Warren Commission and its conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in killing the president. But who were the conspirators? What was their motive? How could the committee close its doors without the answers?

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Mr. Fonzi, who died in Florida on Aug. 30 at 76, nailed those questions to the committee’s locked doors, figuratively, in a long article he wrote in 1980 for Washingtonian magazine and in a 1993 book, ‘‘The Last Investigation.’’ In both, he chronicled the near-blanket refusal of government intelligence agencies, especially the CIA, to provide the committee with documents it requested. And he accused committee leaders of folding under pressure — from congressional budget hawks, political advisers, and the intelligence agencies themselves — just as promising new leads were emerging.

“Is it unrealistic to desire, for something as important as the assassination of a president, an investigation unbound by political, financial, or time restrictions?’’ he asked in Washingtonian.

He never got the answer he had hoped for. Congress never authorized a follow-up to the work of the committee, which, from 1977 to 1979, also reexamined the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., concluding that it, too, ‘‘likely’’ resulted from an unspecified conspiracy.

But historians and researchers consider Mr. Fonzi’s book among the best of the roughly 600 published on the Kennedy assassination, and credit him with raising doubts about the government’s willingness to share everything it knew. The author Jefferson Morley, a former reporter for The Washington Post, said ‘‘The Last Investigation’’ had refocused attention on a handful of reported contacts between CIA operatives and Oswald — tantalizing leads that had long been fascinating to conspiracy buffs but that had never been fully scrutinized by a veteran investigative reporter.

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The CIA has denied that any such contacts occurred, and Mr. Fonzi spent most of his two years with the committee crisscrossing the world trying to prove otherwise. He considered it impossible that the CIA had never made contact with Oswald, a former Marine who defected to the Soviet Union in 1959, repatriated with his Russian wife and baby in 1962, and settled in Dallas, where he openly espoused Communist views.

“We called him Ahab, because he was so single-minded about that white whale,’’ said G. Robert Blakey, the chief counsel and staff director of the House committee. The white whale for Mr. Fonzi was the meaning of those supposed contacts.

Blakey was criticized by Mr. Fonzi as overly deferential to the CIA, and he now concedes that Mr. Fonzi was probably right on that score. Blakey was shocked in 2003 when declassified CIA documents revealed the full identity of the retired agent who had acted as the committee’s CIA liaison. The agency never told Blakey that the agent, George Joannides, had overseen a group of anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Dallas in the months before the assassination, when Oswald had two well-publicized clashes with them.

At the time of the revelation, the CIA said Joannides had withheld nothing relevant from the committee. Joannides died in 1990.

‘‘Mr. Joannides obstructed our investigation,’’ Blakey said. Asked how that had affected the committee’s work, he added: ‘‘We’ll never know. But I can say that for a guy like Gaeton, a guy who really wanted to know what happened to Kennedy, it kind of tortured him.’’

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Gaetano Fonzi was born in Philadelphia to Leonora and Gaetano Fonzi, a barber. (He later shortened his first name.) After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he was a reporter and editor at Philadelphia Magazine. In one article, he and a coauthor revealed that a former star reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Harry J. Karafin, had extorted money from local businessmen with threats of unflattering coverage.

Mr. Fonzi died of complications of Parkinson’s disease at his home in Manalapan, Fla., his wife, Marie, said. He also leaves four children, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

In Florida, Mr. Fonzi worked for Miami and Gold Coast magazines, writing investigative articles. He also wrote several other books, including a biography of the media mogul and philanthropist Walter Annenberg. But the Kennedy assassination remained the story that consumed him.

‘‘He thought the murder of President Kennedy was a turning point in history,’’ his wife said. ‘‘He said it was the point when the American people stopped trusting their government.’’